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Advanced Technology, Old-Fashioned Tactics Helped Make Bin Laden Raid a Success

August 1, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
For all the planning that went into the Abbottabad raid that killed Osama bin Laden, there were moments when everything could have gone wrong. Ray Suarez discusses the Navy SEAL operation with journalist Nicholas Schmidle, who uncovered new details about the May raid for an article in the latest issue of The New Yorker.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, more details have surfaced on the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

Ray Suarez explores that story.

RAY SUAREZ: For all the detailed planning that went into the bin Laden operation, there were moments when everything could have gone wrong. Some of those have been recounted in a detailed article in the latest New Yorker.

The Navy SEAL operation began in Afghanistan as helicopters took off for the Pakistani town of Abbottabad, where bin Laden was believed to be living.

Writer Nicholas Schmidle joins us now.

And in your telling, it turns out that one of perhaps the most critical decisions was made before the raid even began, having more helicopters available.

NICHOLAS SCHMIDLE, The New Yorker: That’s right.

It was a last-minute decision by the president that he wanted the SEALs to have the ability to — quote, unquote — “fight their way out of Pakistan.” And so the quick-reaction force, which was comprised of the Chinook helicopters that was — that were to leave about 45 minutes after the initial two Black Hawks, which was the assault team, that number was added — or was upped to four at the last minute.

RAY SUAREZ: And that turned out to be important because one of the helicopters in the raid crashed, right?


So, as the first Black Hawk made its way over the target, it experienced this bizarre aerodynamic phenomenon called settling with power, where the pilot begins dropping — the helicopter begins falling and the pilot has an inability to elevate the helicopter. And so that helicopter ultimately crashed, and they had to call the — one of the Chinooks in.

RAY SUAREZ: A lot of what was waiting for them was just going to be an educated guess. Was there much resistance in the compound?

NICHOLAS SCHMIDLE: Well, there wasn’t — the notion — for the past few years, we have always thought that bin Laden was going to be surrounded by this team of 20, 30 bodyguards that were all going to be ready to sort of go to the death for him.

And it ended up inside of the home on that night, it was his bin Laden’s courier and his brother and bin Laden’s 23-year-old son were the only adult males in the house.

RAY SUAREZ: One less-talked-about member of the team, while explosions were going off and rounds were being loosed from weapons, was standing outside the walls. Who was he and what was he doing there?

NICHOLAS SCHMIDLE: Well, they had brought along — so, in the first helicopter, there were 12 SEALs. And in the second helicopter, there were 11 SEALs, Cairo, the Belgian Malinois dog, and then a Pakistani-American translator.

And he was out there, the translator was out there essentially to hold the curious locals and local residents at bay, and to tell them that there’s a security operation going on. And, of course, this is an individual who looks like a Pakistani — who is a Pakistani, who is wearing a shalwar kameez, and he’s telling them there’s a security operation going on, go back to your homes. And people simply sort of took him at his word and turned around and went home.

RAY SUAREZ: When the team was making its way through the building, were they working by educated guess? Was there any intelligence about the layout of the interior of the building?


The satellite photos that were taken of the compound had been taken pre-construction and post-construction. And, so, in the rehearsals leading up — in the weeks leading up to the operation itself, they had practiced with a range of scenarios of what the house might look like inside. But they really had very little idea.

And so they broke into three-man fire teams and they began sort of clearing methodically. But they had no idea what they were encountering as they went along.

RAY SUAREZ: SEALs did have to kill several men on the way deeper into the building. But, finally, they fought their way into Osama bin Laden’s set of rooms. What did they find?

NICHOLAS SCHMIDLE: Well, interestingly, to get up to bin Laden’s room, and even to get from the first floor to the second floor, there had been metal gates that had — locked metal gates preventing individuals from ascending those floors.

So there was such a metal gate at the base of the stairwell leading from the second to the third floor. So, three SEALs blasted through that gate, reached the top step, turned to the right. And at that time, at the end of the hallway, they saw bin Laden poking his head out the door.

RAY SUAREZ: How were Osama bin Laden’s last moments described to you?

NICHOLAS SCHMIDLE: Last moments were described to me that — that these three SEALs proceeded down that hallway, pushed open the door.

And there were two women standing in front of bin Laden, one of which was his fifth and youngest wife, Amal, and another woman that we don’t know totally — we’re not 100 percent sure of the identity of.

But Amal was screaming hysterically at the men, at the SEALs in Arabic. And she began approaching them as if she were going — no one knew exactly what she was going to do. The assumption was that she might have been wearing a suicide vest. So the first SEAL shot her once in the calf to disable her and then wrapped her in a bear hug and drove her and the other woman off to the side, at that point sort of willing to have soaked up the explosion to be able to preserve the mission.

And the second SEAL then came through the door and shot bin Laden once in the chest and, as he began falling backwards, once in the head.

RAY SUAREZ: So, just to clarify, the bear hug was to shield others in the room from the blast if there was a suicide vest?

NICHOLAS SCHMIDLE: Exactly, to soak up — I mean, to absorb the impact of this, of what could have been a suicide jacket, a suicide blast.

RAY SUAREZ: Did Osama bin Laden resist in any way?

NICHOLAS SCHMIDLE: No. He was unarmed. And he — I sort of asked whether there were any final words or any sort of “Dirty Harry” moments. And there were none.

He — it all sort of happened very split-second, but he didn’t resist.

RAY SUAREZ: How did you find out about this?

NICHOLAS SCHMIDLE: Over the course of the past two months, I have been able to find a number of people with intimate knowledge of the raid and have been able to sort of build piece by piece and be able to confirm every aspect of this multiple times, and from that was able to develop this account.

RAY SUAREZ: Have you spoken to anyone who was actually on the raid?

NICHOLAS SCHMIDLE: I have not spoken to any of the 23 SEALs who were on the raid, no.

RAY SUAREZ: The helicopter that crashed was chockfull of advanced technology. How did they handle that? They couldn’t bring it back with them.


So, the pilots of these helicopters, for these very purposes, carry a hammer under the seat. And so the pilot began smashing the instrument panel to disable all of that. And, in the meantime, a demolition team — after he had smashed — after he had been working on smashing the instrument panel, a demolition team took over, used thermite grenades, C4 charges, and eventually they exploded the helicopter.

RAY SUAREZ: That’s refreshingly old-fashioned.

Well, it’s been some time now. Do we know much about what was in all the material that those SEALs took away from the compound, hundreds of pounds of it?


Things have emerged over the course of the past couple of months. The assumption is that — the assumption was that bin Laden was more of a spiritual head, and didn’t have much of an operational role in al-Qaida. Some of the intelligence has suggested otherwise, that he was trying to promote a 9/11 anniversary attack, that there were plans, we don’t know to what extent, to assassinate Gen. Petraeus, the president, and there was plans to stage an attack on U.S. train facilities as well.

But we don’t know sort of at what stage in the development any of those were.

RAY SUAREZ: And I guess they’re still looking at it, right?


RAY SUAREZ: Nicholas Schmidle of The New Yorker, thanks a lot.

NICHOLAS SCHMIDLE: Thanks for having me on.